‘This child, this in-between to which the lovers are now related and which they hold in common, is representative of the world in that it also separates them; it is an indication that they will insert a new world into the existing world.’
-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
What can we know about Arendtian action? In The Human Condition, Arendt tells us, variously, that it belongs to the public sphere, “the space of appearance”, that it takes place between political equals, and that it is “ontologically rooted” in “the fact of natality”. “Natality”, here, is not the same as birth, though it relies on the fact of birth for its conceptual understanding. Natality is the distinctly human capacity to bring forth the new, the radical, the unprecedented: that which is unaccountable by any natural causality, but the fact that we must recourse to the patterns of the natural world in order to explain it is what interests me here.
When we try to fix a notion of Arendtian action, it becomes clear that speech has an important role to play, though the precise relationship between speech and action is a slippery one. Actions are defined in speech, becoming recognisable as actions only when they have been placed in narrative, that is: regarded with “the backward glance of the historian”. At the same time, most actions “are performed in the manner of speech”. Speech is rendered as the revelatory tool of action, but, further to this, both action and speech share a number of key characteristics so that it is impossible to fully disentangle the one from the other.
A moment of possible illumination arrives under the heading “Irreversibility and the Power to Forgive”. For Arendt, action has no end. It contains within it the potential to produce an endless chain of reactions that are both unforeseeable and irreversible. With such terrifying momentum attached to everything we do, forgiveness is our release from the consequences of what we have done, without which “our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to a single deed from which we could never recover”. In this context, forgiveness is always radical. It is the beginning of the possibility of the new: “… the act of forgiving can never be predicted, it is the only reaction that acts in an unexpected way and thus retains, though being a reaction, something of the original character of action”.
What’s more, forgiveness is personal, though not necessarily individual or private. It is, traditionally, connected to love, which Arendt describes as unworldly, indeed: “the most powerful of all anti-political human forces”. In the image of the lovers’ child, the child is used to represent the possibility of forgiveness, that is made representative of the world in its ability to join and divide.
Ultimately, it is not love that Arendt places in relation to forgiveness, it is a distant respect that can only occur “without intimacy and without closeness; it is a regard for the person from the distance which the space of the world puts between us”. Yet, in this moment in the text, Arendt leans upon an image of the unworldly in order to pull from it the particular activities of the world. It is the ability of action to emerge -- unforeseeable, unprecedented -- that Arendt performs here in language. It is the movement of the imagery that alerts us to the essential quality of action to appear, unexpected, as well as to the fragility of the political realm and its complex array of differences from and interconnections with the private. One need only examine the syntax to understand the dynamic of action that Arendt illustrates here: where a semi-colon would usually indicate two halves of a balanced equation, Arendt uses it as a springboard from which to make a tiger’s leap into the new.
There are a number of things to be gained from a close reading of the linguistic representation of the movement of action, not least in light of the fact that, in writing this book, Arendt is expressing a deep-seated fear that the faculty for action is about to slip away from us entirely. While much ink has been spilled over whether or not the categories and oppositions that arise in The Human Condition can be fully understood in any concrete way, on whether or not they hold, it may be that the apparent slippages in the text are, in fact, our most fruitful way in to understanding the particular dynamics and character of Arendtian action; an understanding that may then be put to some homeopathic use in our own work.
Richard Halpern, “Eclipse of Action: Hamlet and the Political Economy of Playing,” Shakespeare Quarterly, Volume 59, Number 4, Winter 2008, pp. 450-482
As he formulates an original response to the classic problem of Hamlet’s non-action, Halpern offers one of the few critical analyses of Arendt’s reading of Adam Smith in The Human Condition. He shows how Arendt draws on Smith’s concepts of productive and unproductive labor to articulate her key concepts of work and labor. Moreover, his close reading draws our attention to an intriguing paradox in the temporality of action that may indicate a corrective—albeit a difficult one—to the current demand for instant gratification that often leads to cynicism in the face of great political challenges.
Halpern reminds us that Aristotle separates action from labor; Smith replaces action with production; and Arendt seeks to restore action to a place of prominence in the political realm. Arendt explicitly says that “the distinction between productive and unproductive labor contains, albeit in a prejudicial manner, the more fundamental distinction between work and labor” (HC 87). She does not simply take over Smith’s idea, but wishes to transfer his distinction from his own economic system (the “prejudice” of his own thought) to her own thinking of labor and work. Halpern’s analysis of Arendt’s move helps us start to think about her surprising appeal to 18th century economic theory. Moreover, it her discussion of Smith (and better known critique of Marx), I see her posing an even broader question: what does it mean to be productive and what are the appropriate spheres of different types of productivity?
Within the realm of production, Halpern looks at how Smith offers a further distinction in Book 2, Chapter 3 of The Wealth of Nations, under the heading “Of the Accumulation of Capital, or of Productive and Unproductive Labor”:
There is one sort of labor which adds to the value of the subject upon which it is bestowed: there is another which has no such effect. The former, as it produces a value, may be called productive; the latter, unproductive labour. Thus the labour of a manufacturer adds, generally, to the value of the materials which he works upon, that of his own maintenance, and of his master’s profit. The labor of a menial servant, on the contrary, adds to the value of nothing. (Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, ed. Edwin Cannan (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1976), 351.)
Smith draws a distinction between labor that holds or builds value (say the manufacture of a chair), and labor that evaporates the moment the worker completes it (such as cleaning the house or washing clothes). Classical political economists of the 18th and 19th century engaged in wide ranging debates over what should “count” as value before capitalist countries agreed on the ratio of labour to output or per capita GDP as the standard; socialist countries, following the USSR, adopted an alternative “material product system” that prioritized the amount of goods. In a time of environmental change, this glimpse into the history of economic theory may offer a helpful reminder that society can decide to change the standard of economic success.
According to Halpern, Arendt draws from Smith not to rehabilitate an outmoded aspect of economic theory, but to draw inspiration for her creation of distinct conceptual spaces for labor, work, and action. Specifically, she aligns Smith’s “unproductive labor” with her circular conception of labor and “productive labor” with her linear conception of work. This does not mean that labor is unproductive but it does require a clarification of different types of productivity. I see it as useful to keep the discussion on productivity since these spheres of private life and cultural and industrial economy then offer a contrast to the political sphere where action can happen. Action is neither circular like labor, nor linear like work, but has its own peculiar directionality and temporality. Halpern’s analysis helpfully zeroes in on the perplexing relation between the ephemerality of labor and action and action’s desire for permanence:
The temporal paradox of the political is that while it aims at immortality, action and speech are, in themselves, evanescent: “Left to themselves, they lack not only the tangibility of other things, but are even less durable and more futile than what we produce for consumption” (HC 95). Like Smith’s unproductive labor, action disappears in the moment of its occurrence because it leaves no material trace behind. (Halpern, 457)
Politics demands an extraordinary effort. It asks that one expend energy indefinitely for an uncertain reward. Discussion and debate goes on and on, only occasionally clicking with spectacular agreement or deflationary compromise. Arendt’s analysis can help us perceive the difficulty of contemporary politics that attempts to fit into consumer culture that preserves, and thus remembers, nothing.
Arendt’s attention to the aspects of debate and negotiation that might be seen as unproductive (a dimension that in other parts of the Human Condition she relates to menial work, again often in relation to Smith) offers a corrective to a misguided understanding of politics that leads to frustration and despair.Even if we are not at the extreme level of the menial functioning of a New England town hall meeting debating the budget for potholes or an Occupy Wall Street discussion that requires unanimous consensus for closure, politics works in a different temporality. Rather than the fever pitched accusations of crisis that in the U.S. actually covers up rather than encourage political risk, a more humble sense of public debate as requiring something like the patience of the menial task may be a corrective.
Political action in Arendt’s sense differs from work in being freed from a fixed goal. She links this freedom, which for her is based on self-referentiality, to drama:
Arendt’s discomfort with the economic dimension of theater reveals itself when she criticizes Adam Smith for grouping actors, along with churchmen, lawyers, musicians, and others, as unproductive laborers and hence as lowly cousins of the menial servant (HC 207). Arendt would distinguish all of these activities from labor in that they “do not pursue an end . . . and leave no work behind . . . , but exhaust their full meaning in the performance itself ” (206). Smith’s inclusion of these autotelic activities under the category of labor is for Arendt a sign of the degradation that human activity had already undergone by the early days of the modern era. By contrast, “It was precisely these occupations—healing, flute-playing, play-acting—which furnished ancient thinking with examples for the highest and greatest activities of man” (207–21). What Arendt overlooks is that—already in the ancient world—healing, flute playing, and playacting became remunerated professions and differed in this respect from politics, which was not the work of a professional class of politicians. (Halpern 458)
Arendt agrees that actors on the stage perform fleeting scenes, but wishes to link this to “the highest and greatest activities of man,” ie. those of politics. Halpern argues that in fact, actors in ancient times already worked for wages and were thus not independent like citizens in their roles as politicians. Nonetheless, Arendt shows us that in the modern period we can learn something about acting in politics from acting in the arts. The key point for Halpern is that drama, etc. are “autotelic activities.” They do not even keep up the house like menial work; they have their own end and really evaporate in reaching this end. Political action works along an undecidable edge: even less productive than labor but at any moment potentially the most lasting. Against the odds, politics holds open the space in which something new can begin and thus renew the human world against the circular forces of nature.
One could reasonably argue that in his focus on the connection between labor and action, Halpern fails to adequately emphasize the importance of work. In a world of labor and the victory of animal laborans, there is no work to preserve action and no polis/world to give action memorialization. Indeed, we face the danger of the collapse of the world into the “waste economy” (HC 134) and the seductions to action disappear. However, Halpern does not say that play is action for Arendt but rather, as I understand his argument, that it there is an aspect of action that is like play. Action requires debate that may seem to be going nowhere, or just be undertaken for its own sake up to the moment that it takes a risk. When it dares to venture into the public realm, action clearly very different from play as a hobby.
Labor is both constant and fleeting. On the one hand, the demands of the body never end, nor do the cycles of nature. On the other hand, labor is also fleeting in that its mode of production only temporarily maintains life. Action is also fleeting from the perspective that the risk it takes often evaporates but has the utmost political constancy when one considers those actions that succeed in forming the power of a new beginning.
In the remainder of the article, Halpern moves from The Human Condition to Hamlet, arguing that Shakespeare replaces action on the classical model of tragedy with the ceaseless activity of Hamlet’s thoughts. This activity runs in circles like unproductive labor in Smith and labor in Arendt rather than the action of Aristotle’s aesthetic and Arendt’s political ideal. From an Arendtian point of view, the modernity of the drama reveals a challenge to politics, the challenge of a time out of joint that action has to face again and again.
“What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing”
—Hannah Arendt, “Prologue”, The Human Condition
The final scene of Alfonso Cuarón’s new film, Gravity, shows us Sandra Bullock trapped underwater in a satellite escape pod that she has just crashed into earth. Breaking loose from the straps and the heavy door of the pod, her body shoots up, slender and nymph like, to the surface of the unnamed body of water in which she almost drowned. She crawls out to the sand, in the footsteps of some primordial amphibian and within a few seconds she has struggled her way to uprightness, readjusting to gravity and completing the entire process of evolution. With Bullock, we feel relief and gratitude for the force that pulls us all down and makes us earth-bound creatures. In the 90 minutes leading up to this moment, we have seen her float in space, escaping one disaster or explosion after another and keeping herself precariously tethered to a bunch of satellite debris, until she finally manages to launch herself back to earth and to gravity.
I thought of this last scene – that final bit of action and irony thrown in before we are allowed to leave the movie theater: “You think she has made it back to earth? Oh no! She is about to drown!” – as I watched Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt. The earth, and the fact that we are earth-bound creatures, our life with gravity, was a matter of great interest to Arendt. She discusses the launch of the Sputnik, that forefather of the satellites that crowd the sky in Gravity, in the forward of her book, The Human Condition, and worries that we might all find ourselves in the intellectual corollary of Sandra Bullock’s hovering in space, loosing our earthly orientation. The earth, Arendt writes, “is the very quintessence of the human condition.” (You can read an essay and watch a talk on Arendt’s discussion of earth alienation).
Unlike Cuarón, von Trotta has not produced an action movie in the conventional sense of the term, a fact that she seems to mark explicitly in the first scene of her film, which depicts the abduction of Adolf Eichmann by Mossad agents in Argentina. That moment could be the focal point of an action movie, but von Trotta wants to show us not action, but thinking, a contrast that she draws from Arendt’s writings, of course.
The movie is rich with details of Arendt’s life in the world: her love relationships and friendships, her body and the domestic setting that housed it, her public life. But what it attempts to capture are the moments in which Arendt withdraws from all of that to do what she suggests in the forward to The Human Condition: “to think what we are doing.” Barbara Sukowa depicts the thinking Arendt as she lies down on her recliner, eyes closed, slowly sucking on her cigarette. In fact, what she does is not thinking, but – as we are made to notice by Mary McCarthy’s chiding imitation of her friend’s heavy German accent in one of the party scenes that takes place in the Arendt-Blücher home on the Upper West Side – she is “sinking”. This is not a minor detail. Arendt’s political thought and her controversial analysis of the Eichmann trial, which is at the center of the movie, were formed by her own experience of statelessness and exile; the book about Eichmann, which she wrote in English, speaks with that German accent.
From the moment that McCarthy has imitated it, whenever Arendt speaks passionately about “the responsibility to sink” and “Eichmann’s inability to sink”, the viewer can’t help but note with amusement. A second immigrant’s slip of the tongue, caught by McCarthy and highlighted by its significant recurrence in the movie, also belongs to the same underwater sphere where Bullock spends the final dramatic moments of Gravity. In a discussion of the upcoming American elections, Arendt predicts that what will matter “when the ships are down” is Kennedy’s youth and charisma. When McCarthy corrects her, Arendt waves her hands impatiently. But as von Trotta’s film winds its way toward its ending, in the dramatic scene in which Arendt finally decides to lecture in public and provide a passionate defense of her book, she corrects herself and states that radical evil occurs when people fail to act “when the chips are down,” emphasizing the affricate sound of her acquired American idiom.
Though it could not be more different from Cuarón’s last bid to pump his viewers’ adrenaline by throwing Bullock into the sea, this too is an action scene. Arendt is performing precisely the type of action championed in her Human Condition, stepping out to the Agora, engaging in debate and defending her position. What von Trotta has shown is that Arendt’s terms are useful also for thinking about current cinema and the ways in which it shows us what it means to be human, what it means to act and to think about what we are doing.
University of Chicago
This Quote of the Week was originally published on May 21, 2012.
"Acting and Thinking: Thinking is rather complete concentration or absolute waking, that through which and in which all other "faculties" concentrate themselves."
—Arendt, Denktagebuch, vol. 1, 12
In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt treats action as one of the three "most elementary articulations of the human condition"—those activities that are "within the range of every human being." But Arendt leaves out other—less elementary—articulations of human being. Most notably, she specifically says that the book will not address thinking, "the highest and perhaps purest activity of which men are capable." If acting is the highest of the elementary ways of being human, thinking is a specific kind of action that is, by its rarity, reserved for the few. Written by one of those few, The Human Condition is, above all, an attempt to "think what we are doing."
The Human Condition traces the relation between thinking and acting that cuts through all of Arendt's writing. Her account of Adolf Eichmann emphasizes his thoughtlessness. She comes to believe that it is thoughtlessness that makes possible evil actions and that thinking is the only possible way to stop or at least dis-empower the human tendency to do evil.
Similarly, thinking what we do is the path toward a reinvigoration of politics.
But what, exactly, is the relation between thinking and acting? Near the beginning Hannah Arendt's Denktagebuch, in July 1950, Arendt sets down the first of what will become numerous entries under the title: "Acting and Thinking." While many themes run through theDenktagebuch (literally, a book-of-thoughts), no other theme is so prevalent as "Acting and Thinking." In this early line of thought, we see Arendt's attempt to establish the relation between the two activities that would come to dominate her own thinking for the next 25 years.
The full entry, which references Martin Heidegger and William Faulkner, is worth citing in its entirety:
Acting and Thinking: Heidegger can only mean that it rests upon the sameness of being and thinking, and surely then, when thinking is understood as the being of man in the sense of the being of being. Thinking would then be the being that in man is freed to be action. Thinking is here neither speculation nor contemplation nor "cogitation." It is rather the complete concentration or the absolute waking, that through which and in which all other "faculties" concentrate themselves.
"Why did I wake since waking I never shall sleep again."
The quoted line at the bottom is a slight misquotation of William Faulkner's famous line fromAbsalom, Abaslom (Arendt transposes "never" and "shall"). Thinking, Arendt writes, is an "absolute waking." It can be a rude awakening, insofar as it tears one from the dream world of easy living and requires concentrated attention to difficulty. In such wakefulness, there is the ecstasy of absolutely wakeful concentration.
The word Arendt uses to describe the fullness of wakeful thinking is the German vollbringen, to complete, or to bring to fullness. This is, not coincidentally, the same word Martin Heidegger uses to describe both thinking and acting in his 1946 Letter on Humanism. Heidegger begins his Letter on Humanismwith a discussion of the relation of action and thinking. The first sentence introduces the relationship: "We are still far from thinking the essence of action decisively enough."
If usually we think of action as simply something that causes or brings about effects, Heidegger writes that this is not decisive enough. Instead, "The essence of action is the bringing of something to completion, or the bringing of something to fulfillment." To act is to unfold something in the fullness of its essence, to bring it to be what it most is. It is for this reason that human action is thinking, since “Thinking brings to fullness the relation of being to the essence of man."
Arendt follows Heidegger in seeing thinking as the same as acting. What Arendt's account of thinking as fulfilling and completing wakefulness adds to Heidegger's conjunction of action and thinking is her insistence on human freedom. In the relation of action and thinking Arendt rejects all determinism and all understandings of action and thinking based in speculation, contemplation, or cognition, all of which subordinate human action to rules or reasons. Arendt's acting and thinking human being is not a shepherd of being, but a beginner.
Thinking, Arendt writes, is freed to act and to bring new things into the world. That is what Arendt means by a thinking that is absolutely awake. Thinking what we are doing must, therefore, be itself an active beginning, a surprising and spontaneous action that inserts itself into the world in act and deed. If such thinking is surprising and new, it will draw others to it who will tell stories about it. Only then, if and when thinking inspires others to act in its wake, does thinking act.
It is a new year, not only for Jews celebrating Rosh Hashanah but also for hundreds of thousands of college and university students around the world. As with all new things, there are surprises in store, some glorious and others traumatic. Over at Harvard, they invited Nannerl O. Keohane —past President of Wellesley College—to give the new students some advice on how to reflect upon and imagine the years of education that lay before them. Keohane refashioned some words she had given previously to students at Stanford and called them: “Self-Fashioning in Society and Solitude.”
Above all, Keohane urges students to take time to think about what they want from their education:
You now have this incredible opportunity to shape who you are as a person, what you are like, and what you seek for the future. You have both the time and the materials to do this. You may think you’ve never been busier in your life, and that’s probably true; but most of you have “time” in the sense of no other duties that require your attention and energy. Shaping your character is what you are supposed to do with your education; it’s not competing with something else. You won’t have many other periods in your life that will be this way until you retire when, if you are fortunate, you’ll have another chance; but then you will be more set in your ways, and may find it harder to change.
Keohane also turns to Hannah Arendt for advice. She writes:
In the fifth chapter of her powerful work of political philosophy, The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt discusses the connections between individuals and political communities. She notes that each human being is “distinguished from any other who is, was, and ever will be”—which is a vivid way of thinking about selfhood. Yet precisely because each of us is a distinct individual, we need speech and action to communicate; I cannot just sense instinctively what somewhat else is thinking. In speaking and acting, we “disclose ourselves” and thus expose ourselves to possible misunderstanding or exploitation by others, but also to the rich possibilities of communication.
Speech and action, in Arendt’s sense, cannot exist in isolation; they are meaningful only within human relationships. By the same token, “human nature”—as distinct from our more animal qualities—depends precisely on our capacity for speech and action: it is in fact through speech and action that each of us constitutes our self. This is Arendt’s distinctive contribution to our discussion of self-fashioning: the self is created not by each of us as individuals in isolation, but through the activities we share with other human beings—language, creativity, striving, politics. If your goal is to fashion a worthwhile self, you should be mindful of your surroundings and choose companions and activities that will give you opportunities to develop your language, creativity, striving, and politics in more depth.
Keohane is right that Arendt understands the fashioning of our public selves to take place through speech and action with others. The self that is created as a public self—the self that is spoken of in the public sphere—is created through the activities we share with other human beings.
At the same time, Arendt is clear that the emergence into public life of a unique self must be nurtured in the private realm. This is especially true for children, who must be protected against the public world. Children, she writes, “must be protected against the world,” which is why the child’s “traditional place is in the family, whose adult members daily return back from the outside world and withdraw into the security of private life within four walls.” Education, Arendt insists, is not an activity of the public sphere and the world, but requires a “secure place, without which no living being can thrive.” For Arendt, children must develop outside the “merciless glare of the public realm.” Only then can they develop individually and uniquely into plural and independent persons. In order that there be a public world of plurality, we need a private world of solitude and darkness. “Everything that lives,” Arendt writes, “emerges from darkness and, however strong its natural tendency to thrust itself into the light, it nevertheless needs the security of darkness to grow at all.”
Keohane too embraces the importance of solitude in education, arguing that a reflective education must have a double aspect, looking both inwards in solitude and outwards towards society. She enlists Thoreau and Montaigne in the defense of solitude, even as she insists that a liberal arts education has, in the end, “education for citizenship.”
At a time when democracy is passionately sought by people in countries around the world, and countries that have long enjoyed democracy are struggling to sustain it against multiple pressures, education for citizenship is one of the most powerful arguments for a liberal-arts education.
What Arendt argues, however, is that what makes education supportive of citizenship is precisely its inculcation of the virtues of solitude. Only the person who knows himself and thinks for himself and thus is inured to the sway of society and social pressures is, in Emerson’s words, qualified to enter the public forum.
Precisely this question of what does it mean to educate citizens today, and how we are to respond to the crisis of apathetic yet educated citizens, underlies the upcoming Arendt Center Conference: Failing Fast: The Educated Citizen in Crisis. The Conference takes place Oct. 3-4 at Bard College. And is open to the public. For now, take a look at Keohane’s speech. It is your weekend read.
Mary Dietz, "Hannah Arendt and Feminist Politics"
In: Hannah Arendt: Critical Essays (Albany: SUNY Press, 1994) 231-260.
Dietz begins by recalling that in the 1970s and 80s, feminist critics Adrienne Rich and Mary O'Brien attacked Arendt as a great political thinker who, as female, was all the more culpable for strengthening traditional gender differences in her writing. These critics primary challenged Arendt's hard line between labor and action. Dietz agrees with these critics that since the duties of body and household that characterize labor traditionally fall to women, Arendt's conceptual distinction has the potential to reinforce gender roles that have excluded women from the public realm. Action, in contrast to labor, occurs in an explicitly political sphere modeled on ancient Athens, where men debated the future of the city.
In Dietz's account, much of broader feminist thought celebrates the very spheres of life that have traditionally been relegated to the household and family. She, in contrast, sees Arendt as offering a way to not to look inward, but to value all voices in the public realm. In "Arendt's existential analysis [...] there is nothing intrinsically or essentially masculine about the public realm, just as there is nothing essentially feminine about laboring in the realm of necessity" (248). In other words, she removes the inner anchors of the public realm in some see in gender difference and replaces it with and alternative spatial conception. In terms of a critique of "essence," and thinking of recent work on Heidegger's influence on Arendt, this insight might be understood as expanding what Heidegger terms "existential spatiality" in Being and Time into the political realm.
A second advantage of Arendt's though that Dietz sees as relevant for feminist thought is the emphasis on speech. While Arendt does not go into the specifics of how speech should work in the political realm, Dietz asks if women potentially bring a different voice to plural deliberations.
Perhaps most compellingly, Dietz concludes by arguing that Arendt actually brings the body into the political realm: "In fact, Arendt's account of politics in the public realm brings courage, the spontaneity of passion, and "appearance" to the foreground" (250). Here she emphasized Arendt's specific definition of "reason" in the political realm, which is not just instrumental but includes an expansive representational thinking.
Reflecting on Dietz's argument suggests a parallel between scholarship on Hegel and Arendt. In the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel at times says that spirit moves from a lower to a higher level, implying a hierarchy of meaning. In recent years though, commentators have emphasized that "absolute knowledge" does not simply cancel out the earlier stages but brings them together in a new way. In other words, they work to redefine the key term "sublation" (Aufhebung). Similarly, Arendt does clearly value action over work and labor from the point of view of the threatened political realm. However, the impression that Arendt leaves labor behind may be a matter of tone more than logic. A close reading of the Human Condition shows that all three spheres of labor, work, and action are important and interconnected. A rereading of Arendt that takes into account earlier conceptual clarifications but looks for new links can work out exactly how these connections operate.
Everything that is, must appear, and nothing can appear without a shape of its own…
-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
The book is under attack. A recent article in The New Atlantis begins by calling the book “modernity’s quintessential technology,” but reports that “now that the rustle of the book’s turning page competes with the flicker of the screen’s twitching pixel, we must consider the possibility that the book may not be around much longer,” and asks “If it isn’t — if we choose to replace the book…what does it tell us about ourselves that we may soon retire this most remarkable, five-hundred-year-old technology?” The book’s future at the university is also uncertain. Even as student surveys consistently show preference for the “real thing,” a shift of emphasis towards the e-text is discernible in library catalogs and, increasingly, basic course requirements. Since 2009, roughly thirty major universities have joined a pilot program requiring the purchase of e-text in lieu of textbooks for select courses.
The challenge for those driven to distraction by these developments is to articulate, in reasonably urgent and suitably political terms, what might otherwise seem a vague and idiosyncratic sense of loss—loss of depth and of a world—in an age of digital information. To this purpose, Christine Rosen in the aforementioned article quotes Hannah Arendt: “The printed book is the ‘transformation of the intangible into the tangibility of things,’ as Hannah Arendt put it; it is imagined and lived action and speech turned into palpable remembrance.”
The quote comes from a section of Arendt’s The Human Condition called “The Thing-Character of the World.” There Arendt distinguishes the products of labor, work, and action in their distinct roles in the making of the world. What distinguishes the first two—the products of labor and work—is that while the former (e.g. “a bread”), being “needed by our bodies…but without stability,” are destined to “appear and disappear” through “incessant consumption,” the latter (e.g. “a table”), “Viewed as part of the world…guarantee the permanence and durability without which a world would not be possible at all.” Though the products of work “wear” over time through use, they do not regularly “disappear”—indeed, Arendt says later in The Human Condition that without their stability the human artifice “could never be a reliable home for men”; that without the fabrication of houses, chairs, tables, tools, bridges and the like—the world would assume “the sublime indifference of untouched nature,” and our dwelling within it (to the extent that such a term would be appropriate) would mean substantially less.
The products of work, in turn, bear a special relationship to “the ‘products’ of action and speech, which together constitute the fabric of human relationships and affairs.” Because the latter “do not ‘produce,’ bring forth anything…In order to become worldly things…they must first be seen, heard, and remembered and then transformed, reified as it were, into things—into sayings of poetry, the written page or the printed book, into paintings or sculpture, into all sorts of records, documents, and monuments.” Human remembrance of action and speech may sustain the “factual world of human affairs” for a short while, but ultimately “The reality and reliability of the human world rest primarily on the fact that we are surrounded by things more permanent,” things which survive long after the act and actor.
Seeing all this, the problem of books remains a perplexing one—for on one hand, if the written word simply compensates for the frailty of human remembrance, might a digital text serve the same purpose? On the other hand, if standard mass produced books hardly qualify as singular “works of art” (which Arendt calls “the most intensely worldly of all tangible things” because they endure both despite and because they have no use value) our only alternative is to accord books the same status as Arendt’s “chair,” a worldly artifact which stays in the world not only because it is durable, but because it is useful. This, however, only begets the original question of why use the book in the first place, rather than a digital copy? Absent any rare or singular artistic value to a particular volume, there seems no clear reason to preserve the book. To exit this conundrum, it seems one must explain why reification of the word in particular into a tangible thing is important.
In a recent article in Philosophy and Literature Jonathan Brent offers one answer. He writes that “‘Content’ is not simply ‘content.’ It has a form and a wrapper. If we do not recognize this, we risk making a fundamental mistake.” Books, says Brent, with their “spines, headbands, prefaces (and sometimes postfaces), appendices, running feet, footnotes, headnotes, shoulders...heads…[and] tails,” are not only “‘content’ but…unique embodiments and transmitters of a life beyond themselves[.]”
Moreover “The characters, of which words are made, are not a graven image but engraved images made originally with an instrument that in Greek was called a kharakter.” Thus the covenant between God and Abraham and his descendants—a sentence—“cuts into us at the point where the flesh and word become one.” In the same spirit, one might add, did God give unto Moses “two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.”
For Arendt, the reification of words serves a purpose less reliant on the rugged idea of kharacter, and more on Brent’s colorful sense of “form and wrapper.” Indeed, for Arendt it is precisely the “form and wrapper” which give the ordinary products of work—the useful but otherwise expendable artifacts of the world—a far more profound and ultimately political importance:
“The man-made world of things,” Arendt concludes Section 23 of The Human Condition (“The Permanence of the World and the Work of Art,” and the last section of the chapter on “Work”), “the human artifice erected by homo faber, becomes a home for mortal men, whose stability will endure and outlast the ever-changing movement of their lives and actions, only insomuch as it transcends both the sheer functionalism of things produced for consumption and the sheer utility of objects produced for use.” In other words, notwithstanding that the durable objects of the world first exist, and then persist in the world largely because of their use value, in appearing before humans they also achieve a value and meaning independent of instrumental concerns—a value and meaning in and of themselves. Arendt prepares this point some lines earlier: “Everything that is,” she writes, “must appear, and nothing can appear without a shape of its own; hence there is in fact no thing that does not in some way transcend its functional use, and its transcendence, its beauty or ugliness, is identical with appearing publicly and being seen. By the same token, namely, its sheer worldly existence, everything also transcends the sphere of pure instrumentality…are judged not only according to the subjective needs of men but by the objective standards of the world where they will find their place[.]”
Here Arendt, in a manner not as apparent in her later appropriation of Kant (where she attaches judgment to the sense of taste), suggests a direct connection between the possibility for political judgment and the sense of sight. The appearance of product of work in public not only establishes the thing as thing, but engenders an aesthetic quality that transcends its use value, thus giving the world itself a firmer grounding than mere utility. Moreover, the appearance of the thing in public functions like Arendt’s famous “table” which at once relates and separates humans, not only in space, but also (as Arendt’s own desk continues to do in the classroom at Bard College’s Hannah Arendt Center) across time. In the case of books, it is not only the physical binding that appears in public, but just as importantly the great words and deeds contained within in which, through the tangible presence of the book, also enter the everyday world of appearances.
Hannah Arendt, as is well known, was a student of Martin Heidegger. In his essay “The Thing” Heidegger wrote that “the Old High German word thing means a gathering, and specifically a gathering to deliberate on a matter under discussion, a contested matter.” Furthermore “thing or dinc…is suited as no other word to translate properly the Roman word res, that which is pertinent, which has a bearing,” as in res publica which means, “not the state, but that which, known to everyone, concerns everybody and is therefore deliberated in public.” In this context Heidegger warned that while “Thinging is the nearing of the world,” the “frantic abolition of all distances brings no nearness.” The abolition of all distances fashioned by modern technology, in other words, threatens to eliminate the minimal distance required for things to appear in public in a manner that is both in-between and connecting of individuals. Thus, Heidegger warned, at a time in which “All distances in time and space are shrinking,” and man receives “instant information” and witnesses “the abolition of every possibility of remoteness,” the paradoxical result will be “the failure of nearness to materialize in consequence of the abolition of all distances[.]”
Such passages evoke a famous moment in The Human Condition previously alluded to, where Arendt writes that “To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common as a table is located between those who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time.” Books—old-fashioned, time faded, coffee-stained books—are part of that world of things that, like Arendt’s table, constitute the in-between that relates and separates men. Seen through the lens of Heidegger and Arendt, the problem facing the digital age—of which the vanishing of books is but one exemplary form—is whether the world itself, and the worldly in-between with its attendant plurality mediated by things that appear and endure, can itself endure; or alternatively, whether a world is still possible, and if so what kind, among humans related and separated no longer by things, but by pixel screens and antennae.